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  • Service and Dependency in Shakespeare's Plays
  • Melissa Walter
Judith Weil . Service and Dependency in Shakespeare's Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. x + 210 pp. index. bibl. $75. ISBN: 0-521-84405-3.

Service and Dependency offers a book-length critical essay that blends close readings of Shakespeare's plays with social history and contemporary documents such as diaries and prescriptive dialogues. Observing the distinctions between service and slavery made in early modern texts and examining forms of freedom, agency, and ethical insight available even in hierarchical service relationships, Judith Weil demonstrates how dependents of various kinds find agency within subordinate positions and how masters' purposes are at times effected, and at times limited or transformed, by their servants or by their affiliations with subordinate roles.

After an introduction, the book is divided into chapters examining the intermingling of the roles of youth and servant, wife and servant, and friend and servant. Two final chapters draw upon the claims made earlier. In chapter 2, focusing on Hamlet, Coriolanus, King John, and Cymbeline, Weil emphasizes fears of instrumentalization and the process of imitation whereby youths in service roles both avoid the hypocrisy of "eye service" and learn aristocratic mastery. Her readings of Hamlet and Coriolanus show their resistance to instrumentalization or enslavement — in Hamlet's case, via vulnerable dependents as well as via the role of revenger — as well as the ways in which being a war machine makes Coriolanus an instrument.

In chapter 3, on wives and servants, Weil foregrounds Emilia's rebellion at the end of Othello as an instance of drama supplementing prescriptive manuals' picture of early modern service. In The Taming of the Shrew, Weil traces Kate's interactions with servants to argue that Kate learns "reciprocity," not simply "submission to power" (57). In Alls Well that Ends Well, Weil argues that like Parolles, Helena disgusts Bertram because she alienates or transforms his will, and that, "to be forcibly reminded that such a convenient presence or human instrument has a body and intentions of its own seems to provoke Bertram . . . into an attitude for which we have no one name" (67). Weil's reading of Leontes's spider's web as a web of service in which Leontes fears the loss of his will further demonstrates her critical method, which blends close attention to key imagery with historically informed notions of service.

Chapter 4 explores "assured friendship," where service and friendship mix, and features the idea that the "susceptible, incontinent bodies" of early modern city comedy trope the dependencies and distributed agencies of assured friends (90). The image of assured friendship as a shared body helps explain why Falstaff and Enobarbus die when severed from their masters, but Weil also suggests that Antony and Cleopatra are equally dependent on their servants' wit, and suffer disaster when they fail to interpret correctly insights which are provided by Enobarbus and Charmian in a jesting mode of "calculated openness" which leaves the masters "free to grasp" the meaning (97).

Chapters 5 and 6 recapitulate some of the main tensions of the book, as King [End Page 979] Lear's distaste for generation is read as another case of disgust with subordinates having their own wills, and Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, and Edgar are examined in terms of assured friendship and its abuses. The chapter also conjures a castoff servant girl with whom, Weil argues, Lear identifies. Examining slavery and freedom in Macbeth, Weil startlingly reads the final image of Macbeth's head on a pike as an "emblem of a tool wearing a head" that "makes visible the horror of becoming a human thing in a world where service and clientage were still facts of life" (145).

Weil's study provides impressively detailed readings of the vocabulary, imagery, and characteristic problems of service in Shakespeare's plays and engages a broad range of the contemporary intertexts. The author also draws from a valuable depth of literary scholarship as well as from social history and historical sociology. Service and Dependency offers important new perspectives on Shakespeare's plays and the institutions of early modern service, especially in its emphasis on the varied forms and fears of agency and servility...


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pp. 979-980
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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